Japan, like Cambodia, was another trip that I knew I was going to prioritize and end up doing during my exchange. I had wanted to go to Japan for years and now that I was finally physically “close” to it (or at least closer than a 14-hour plane ride from Toronto), I was going to make the trip happen. I was so committed to the idea of it that I made sure to pack warm clothes with me back in December – jeans, sweaters, and even my light winter coat. Luckily, I found an amazing group of people who also wanted to go and very early on, we committed to a Japan trip for our school’s reading week in February.
Our itinerary was as follows: We were going to be in Japan from February 21st to February 29th. We would spend the first 3 days (Feb 21-Feb 23) in Osaka, with a day trip to Nara on the 23rd. Then we’d take the train to Kyoto and spend the 24th and 25th there. On the morning of the 26th, we’d take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo and stay until the morning of the 29th, which was when our return flight to Singapore was scheduled.
8 days, 3 big cities + Nara.
We had a lot in store for us and even before we left Singapore, we knew that it’d be a tiring and somewhat rushed trip. Little did we know that we’d end up walking (yes, walking) 163 km in the 8 days that we were there.
This first post is going to highlight our time in Osaka and the one day we spent in Nara. The flight, believe it or not, was still 8 hours from Singapore and so, we didn’t get into Osaka until the early evening of the 21st, despite having a 9 am flight that morning. So for our first day, we took it slow and just explored the Shinsekai area (near our Airbnb) and had our first meal in Japan there (lots of udon and ramen). We continued to wander down to the Dotonburi area, which was Osaka’s “nightlife” area. It gave me a big “Times Square” feel. There were lit up billboards everywhere and every corner you turned, there was a brightly lit advertisement trying to sell you something. There were so many shops and stalls lining both sides of the street selling all sorts of snacks I had no idea how to pronounce. That night, we ended up trying takoyaki (we decided to see which stall had the longest line up to decided where to go), rice cakes, and melon pan bread with ice cream. I loved watching the process of making takoyaki — the person who was responsible for flipping the takoyaki in the grill was so skilled with using the chopsticks, as you can see in the video.
We even got our first look at a Japanese shrine that night on our walk back home. We’d later learn that oftentimes, there would be a lot of shrines tucked away on busy street corners. Anybody was free to wander inside and pray. I absolutely loved the way the lanterns would light up at night, all together, as if sending a message to the sky. A lot of shrines offered the opportunity to make a donation and write a prayer/wish on a wooden card as well — we’d see hundreds and hundreds of these later on in our trip at the bigger temples and shrines.
My three first impressions of Japan thus far: cold (It was the first time I was wearing a jacket in two months and experiencing any sort of weather that was less than 30 degrees Celsius), lots of good food (we’d later have some of the best meals that I’ve ever had) and compact (our Airbnb was probably no bigger than a regular master bedroom back in Canada and yet, they squeezed in 3 beds, a couch, a mini sink, and kitchen area so that up to 6 people could fit in it).
The next day, it was pouring rain all morning and all afternoon, which was so unfortunate. I still remember all 6 of us, walking in a line, huddling under our umbrellas yet still getting completely soaked because the rain was coming from left, right, and center. A few hours after we had set out for the day, all of our shoes were completely soaked.
For that first gloomy and rainy day, our itinerary mostly consisted of temples and shrines:
- Isshinji Temple
- Shitennoji Temple
- Sumiyoshi Shrine
Isshinji Temple is one that we actually stumbled upon when we were trying to find Shitennoji Temple. It was along the way and as we were walking past it, we noticed that there were a lot of people in the temple (which surprised us, considering it was a late morning on a weekday) and so we thought it would be worth checking out. There was a calm flurry of activity inside – people lighting incense, people with their heads bowed in prayer, people performing the Japanese rituals at a temple that we later learned how to also perform. We also later found out that a cool fact about this temple is that the Buddhas are made of crushed bones.
The Shitennoji Temple was my favourite temple of the day. It was a 5 story pagoda and although the sky was dark and the weather was cold, it still stood out in the sky. We got to walk up 5 flights of stairs to the top of the pagoda, although there wasn’t much of a view or a viewing platform at the top.
Sumiyoshi Shrine was another one we stopped at along the way and I regret to say that we were disappointed by it. There wasn’t much to see (or at least we couldn’t find the right area to be in) and so we ended up leaving the shrine after a few minutes of poking our heads around the grounds.
For a late breakfast that day, we had a local delicacy: okonomiyaki, which is a Japanese savoury pancake. I’d highly recommend this for breakfast one morning. We picked a place that clearly was not only popular among tourists, but also among all the locals. It was such a home-kitchen feel in that restaurant; there were only one or two other empty seats after our group was seated, and they made our food right in front of us. Directly in front of all of us was a cooking grill; they would make the okonomiyaki on a grill away from us and then when it was ready, they’d bring each of ours over and put it directly on the platform in front of us so that it would stay warm. You could cut it up and eat it right from the “grill” in front of you.
One thing I loved about that place were the two people who worked there. I assumed that they were family members. Even though we couldn’t really communicate with them, they were so friendly with us and had the biggest smiles, even while they were cooking our food. Towards the end, after we were done eating, a lot of locals were starting to come in (presumably for lunch) and I loved seeing the two of them interact with each local that sat down. It seemed like a place that would remember your name each time you came in, no matter how many times you’d previously gone to eat there.
The rain really picked up in the late afternoon after we ate so to kill some time, we wandered over to the Shinsaibashi, Osaka’s main shopping area, and an enduring symbol of the city that has a history of more than 380 years. It’s described as a commercial avenue stretching north and south for about 580 meters. There are shops of all kinds – kimono shops, fast food outlets, jewelry stores, Japanese delicacy shops, footwear, Western clothing, and so much more. It was easy to spend hours and hours there but unfortunately, we had arrived at around 3 pm and the area was set to close at 4 pm.
That was one thing that frustrated me as a tourist in Japan – nearly every big tourist attraction closed no later than 4 or 5 pm, which made it so hard to see a lot in one day. That was why I am so grateful we chose to start every day as early as possible, often being out the door by 8:00 or 9:00 AM. We had originally wanted to visit Osaka Castle (the biggest attraction) that same day but because it was already nearing 4 pm, we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it. So, we decided to do it first thing tomorrow morning and then head straight to Nara.
What did bring up our mood was another snack break. We opted for taiyaki, which is a Japanese fish-shaped cake. It’s fried/crispy dough on the outside and on the inside, you can choose to get it filled with red bean, sweet potato, custard, etc. A really great afternoon pick-me-up.
Something else that was on our bucket list for Japan was animal cafes. Weird, I know. But I really wanted to go into one (with a preference for cats or dogs or hedgehogs). Luckily, we found a hedgehog cafe that afternoon (Harry Wood Hedgehog Cafe — unfortunate name, in my opinion), and seeing that it was still gloomy and rainy out, we decided to spend an hour there. You usually have to pay for the time you spend there and places will either charge for every 20 minute or 30-minute interval. You usually get free drinks with your stay at the cafe, but we were too focused on maximizing our time with the hedgehogs.
Don’t be fooled by these hedgehogs. They might look sweet and loving on the outside, but they were vicious to us. We even had to put on gloves because they were starting to bite us. At one point, one of the employees there had to come over and take one of our hedgehogs away because it was misbehaving too much. She got another one out from a back closet (This really confused us — how many were back there?) and brought it over to us. That one hated us too. Not sure if I’d go back to a hedgehog cafe just because there was way too much chaotic energy in there.
For dinner that day, we picked a place that specialized in Japanese Curry. All of us, to this day, still dream about the curry that we had at that place. A lot of the more casual restaurants in Japanese are pretty cool – to order, you go to this little machine they have at the front of the store. The machine has all the different menu options and what you do is that you select what you want (for example, Medium curry and all the toppings you want) and then insert the money. It spits out an order confirmation receipt and you have to bring that to the main chef so that they can start preparing the order. It’s actually quite smart now that I think about it because it gets rid of the need to have a cashier/order-taking waitress in the restaurant. Given the size of each of these restaurants, I’m not surprised they look for as many ways as possible to minimize the need for more people.
Our curry was fantastic. Each of us got an array of different toppings – cheese, green onions, pickled radish, and more.
To wrap up the night, we wandered back to the Shinsekai near our Airbnb and had some of Japan’s national beer (KIRIN) at this restaurant that had the very traditional and very Japanese sitting space: insanely low tables. We took off our shoes and sat on the floor, enjoying our beers for the night.
Day 3 (Nara)
We left our Airbnb early in the morning to catch a train to the Osaka Castle.
Osaka Castle’s construction started in 1583 and was spearhead by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who intended the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule. It was the largest castle at the time. However, a few years after Hideyoshi’s death, the castle was attacked and destroyed. It was rebuilt again in the 1620s but its main tower was struck by lightning in 1665 and burnt down. They say third time’s the charm so it was not until 1931 that the castle that is there today was constructed and built, and still stands. During WWII it even miraculously survived the city wide air raids.
I loved wandering around Osaka Castle Park, which covers about 2 square kilometers. There’s a lot of green space and the castle tower itself is surrounded by gates, impressive stone walls, and moats. We decided to pay the admission fee to go inside the castle and got a great view from the top (where they have an observation deck) and also learned a lot about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, history of Osaka, and the history of the battles that the Castle has been involved in.
After our tour of the castle and before heading to Nara for the day, we decided to treat ourselves to matcha ice cream for breakfast, despite how cold we felt after walking around the castle grounds. No regrets at all though.
Nara was such a fun experience. It’s located less than an hour train ride away from Osaka and it’s so worth going if you find yourself in either Osaka or Kyoto. Japan’s first permanent capital was established in the year 710 in the city that is now known as Nara. Because of this history, the city is full of historic treasures, beautiful temples, and of course, hundreds and hundreds of deer that roam free in Nara Park.
We were first greeted by the deer as soon as we started walking deeper into the city from the train station. First, we saw one, then we saw more and more the closer we got to the actual park. We all bought some deer crackers to feed the deer (you’ll see a lot of people selling them on the outskirts of the park) and we just had our fun.
Although the deer look quite sweet, they can actually be quite aggressive, especially if they know you have crackers. They’ve been trained to spot food; if you so much as reach into your pocket, they’ll right away think that you have crackers and will start coming closer to you. The only way to fight them off is to put up both your hands in an “I surrender!” position and they’ll get the message.
We heard that because of the lockdown in China at the end of January, there were fewer tourists coming to Japan over the Lunar New Year period and in general. Therefore, a lot of the deer in the park were noticeably hungrier (poor deer) and were relentless in trying to get their share of cookies. Some have even learned the Japanese custom of bowing and will bow to you to ask to be fed.
I think we spent hours with the deer. I loved feeding them, trying to pet them, and just getting photos with them. Another bonus was that the weather that day was amazing – it was warm, the sun was out, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. It was so different from the bad weather we had the day before. That whole day in my memory is still so clear because of how happy and light we felt.
We decided to also explore the historical treasures in the area. One good thing is that in Nara, everything is pretty close to each other so it was easy to walk to.
We saw Todaiji Temple from the outside (we chose not to go in). Todaiji, often called the Great Eastern Temple, is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. It actually grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs. Until recently, Todaiji’s main hall (the Daibutsuden or Big Buddha Hall) held the record as the world’s largest wooden building. Just seeing the whole temple from the outside was enough to leave us in awe. What we did like seeing was the Nandaimon Gate, which is a large wooden gate watched over by two statues and stands in the middle of the path to Todaiji.
For our last Shrine, we checked out the Kasuga Taisha, which is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. This shrine is most famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. You can find hundreds of bronze lanterns hanging from the buildings and just as many stone lanterns scattered elsewhere.
To end off our day, we headed back to Osaka BY TRAIN and chose to splurge on some sushi for dinner at Rokusen (a restaurant). Seeing that we were in Japan, I was even shocked that it took us more than a day to have our first sushi meal. So far, I’ve actually found the food prices in Japan to be quite reasonable. Usually, a big meal wouldn’t cost more than $10 CAD. This shocked me because, for the longest time, I had this preconceived notion that everything — absolutely everything — in Japan is insanely expensive. So far, I haven’t been super overwhelmed by the prices that I’ve seen for anything, which is surprising considering that I’ve been seeing dirt cheap prices everywhere else in Southeast Asia. Public transportation does get expensive (we’ll see this especially in Tokyo later on) but it isn’t completely unreasonable. Sushi, however, does get to be a bit more expensive than the regular meal. Nonetheless, we knew that we didn’t have many dinners in Japan and every meal seemed to be an opportunity to splurge and really enjoy a local delicacy. We each got something different and so, at our table, there was a good mix of sashimi, rolls, and the like.
So, that was Osaka. After just two full days in the city, I already felt like I had eaten enough for a while. But we were just getting started. The next day, we’d be taking a train to Kyoto in the morning to spend another 2 days there. Kyoto ended up being my favourite stop out of our entire trip (even more so than Tokyo). There was so much culture, so many things to see, and of course, the food was great.